I’ve been told that sailors have a sick fascination with disaster and survival stories; it’s certainly true in our house. On Jay’s shelf are included Endurance, a story about Shackleton’s harrowing ordeal in Antarctica, Into the Wild, Fastnet Force 10,
Adrift, Deep Survival, After the Storm, and Seaworthy: Essential Lessons from Boat U.S.’s 20-Year Case File of Things Gone Wrong. I read Dougal Robertson’s
Survive the Savage Sea, about a family whose boat was sunk in ten minutes after being hit by a pod of angry killer whales, and had to live in their dinghy on the open ocean. We bought a boat anyway.
On a recommendation from a friend (thanks, Andy!), we recently read Black Wave: A Family’s Adventure at Sea and the Disaster that Saved Them by John and Jean Silverwood. It’s a terrifying tale—though excellently told—which I wish had been written several years ago because it’s now a little too close to home. A couple from California with plenty of sailing experience decide to pull their children out of modern American culture and give them a dose of real life and exposure to natural beauty. They set off in a 55’ catamaran with their four children (sound familiar?) and head to islands and waters near and far. It is never as romantic as it seems, of course, and the adventure includes several close calls—a contentious crew, storms, pirates, breakdowns, and a near-mutinous marriage encounter. I won’t spoil the end for you, but it entails barely surviving a shipwreck.
The book is told in two parts: Jean wastes no time in Book I and gets straight to the “good” part, interspersing a moment-by-moment narrative of their disaster with flashbacks that tell how they got to that fateful night on the reef. She writes not only of the difficulties within her marriage and among the children, but of her own shortcomings that are brought to the surface as the family experiences the shrinking pains of living on a boat. She makes me really look in the mirror—how will I handle the stress of living and working and sailing aboard Take Two? In Book II, John gets to tell the story of what went wrong from his perspective and what happened afterwards. He combines his story with the tale of a ship that crashed on the same reef a hundred and fifty years prior (another sailor fascinated with disaster). I appreciated getting both male and female perspectives, and thought it was a good choice to write them separately, instead of trying to synthesize their stories.
On being asked why they wanted to take four children on the adventure of a lifetime, Jean might answer, as she intimates in the book, “I suddenly felt that our own kids were captives to a dull and artificial life, while the beauty of the real world was passing them by.” She wanted them to appreciate the privileges of life in America as they saw how the rest of the world lived. She wanted to slow down enough to really enjoy her children. She shared a dream with her husband and they worked to make it happen. While we are not at the same starting point as their family was in some important ways, they went for some of the same reasons we want to go. And after the disaster, when asked, “Was it worth it?” her answer is stunning: “My husband took me to secluded beaches…My daughter and I raced each other on beautiful horses along the surf…I saw my kids become interesting; I saw two of them grow up. The answer is yes.” For his part, John chose to include perfectly-timed quotes from Melville’s
Moby Dick and an old sea-faring hymn. Their journey, as one might expect, was not merely physical, but spiritual as well, and I cannot do it justice by describing it here. Needless to say, I became quite attached to both of them and missed their voices once the book ended.
Whether you are thinking of going on a high seas adventure yourself or not, it is an excellent read, and I highly recommend it to friends who are wondering what our future life might be like. On the other hand, I do not recommend it to family members who are wondering what terrible things could happen to us in our future life!